I was listening* to Harry Potter recently and letting my mind wonder about where the story could go from its ending. So St Mungo’s hospital crept into these imaginations and it occurred to me how aptly named St Mungo’s is because you see in legend St Mungo treated Merlin’s madness. Perhaps I should back up a bit and explain…
First of all we need to get a little naming terminology straight. “Mungo” is the northern name for St Kentigern, patron saint of Glasgow. It means something like ‘my beloved’. Of course JK Rowling began writing the first Harry Potter novel in Edinburgh where Mungo/Kentigern lore also has a foundation. According to the legends of St Kentigern, he was the son of a daughter of Lot of Lothian and Owain Rheged (Bonedd y Sant), as I wrote about here. Edinburgh is the largest city in the district of Lothian.
The name Merlin also has a complicated history. As we know him today, Merlin is a creation of Geoffrey of Monmouth, who in his Life of Merlin linked his creation Merlin with Myrddin Wyllt of northern lore. In the Old Welsh ‘Dialogue of Myrddin and his sister Gwenddydd’ the equation of Myrddin Wyllt and Llallogan/Llallawc/Lailoken is made the most specific and the story lines dovetail to suggest that Lailoken may have been the original inspiration for Myrddin Wyllt/Merlin.
Now Myrddin Wyllt/Laioken is considered to be a half-mad prophet who stirs up trouble and can never seem to live among people for very long, preferring to live alone in the forest. The story of Myrddin Wyllt explains this as a product of watching or participating in the battle of Arfderydd where 3 or 7 of his brothers die; in effect he has post-traumatic stress syndrome.
“573: The battle of Arfderydd between the sons of Eliffer [Peredur and Gwrgi] and Gwenddolau son of Ceido; in which battle Gwenddolau fell; Merlin went mad” (Annals Cambriae)
The battle of Arfderydd is famous in Welsh lore (traids) for the length of the siege of Gwenddolau’s fortress; his warband is one of three most famous warbands in the triads for fighting on a fortnight after their lord was dead. Under such circumstances, it is likely to have been especially bloody. Ironically the victors, the sons of Eliffer of the Great Retinue, themselves died when they were abandoned by their own warband on the night before a battle with Ida (of Bernicia).
There are a variety of tales of Myrddin’s/Laioken’s prophecies which all of course come true. In the Life of Kentigern, Lailoken’s grief at the death of Kentigern causes him to prophesy of three other deaths within a year, King Rhydderch of Strathclyde, a chieftain Morthec, and his own. In multiple tales Myrddin/Lailoken gives a prophecy on his own triple death, usually by stabbing, drowning and hanging, and then tells how it happened. A version of this story prophesying the deaths of King Rhydderch and a local leader makes it into the last chapter of the Life of Kentigern by Joscelin of Furness. In Geoffrey’s Life of Merlin, several of Merlin’s adventures are similar to those of Kentigern in the Life of Kentigern, including Kentigern’s saving the honor of Rhydderch’s queen in his famous salmon miracle (reflected in the coat of arms of the city of Glasgow).
* My nephews passionately argue that listing to Harry Potter on tape (or now iPod) is cheating, but I assure them that I read plenty and don’t need to do it for practice. I find it a good mental diversion while doing boring chores… besides Jim Dale’s reading is marvelous.
**Apple trees are often linked to the otherworld or otherworldly figures in Celtic lore. In some poems of Myrddin, he sings his prophecy from up in an apple tree. Avalon means Isle of Apples.